Kuruksetra Remembered: The return of the cosmic center

Part I

Willard G. Van De Bogart
December 15, 2007

"In the archaic universe
all things were signs and signatures of each other.
Inscribed in the hologram
To be divined subtly."
Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend: Hamlet's Mill


Kuruksetra, the fertile land of the Kurus, is immortalized in the Mahabharata as the sacred kshetra, literally "field", where the war was waged between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Embedded with the epic text are symbolic references to celestial events, which have aided astronomers and historians alike in the computation of chronologies. In this sense, sage Veda-Vyasa's epic Mahabharata is a hymn devoted to the creation of the universe. So revered was the meaning encoded into the epic, it became, as it were, a cosmogonic template, a model of the origin and evolution of the universe. Its design was remembered, transmitted widely, and instilled in the structural design of temples that would last for thousands of years. This cosmic message is visible today, foremost in the temple bas-reliefs that quietly rest on the floors of the humid jungles and the mountaintops of mainland and archipelagic Southeast Asia. All the same, to misinterpret this historical distribution and suffusion of Vedic culture overseas as the outcome of a unilateral cultural predominance superimposed on a passive, empty "kshetra" realm, would not be a misconstrual of events, but would impede ones decoding of its deepest significance.

This paper points to the essential cultural and metaphysical hybridity (a blending of two distinct cultures) that emerged with the integration of Vedic gods and ancestor spirits encountered on the banks of the Mekong River in countries known today as Laos and Cambodia. But when King Devanika encountered the indigenous spirit of the mountain, P'o-to-li, a very new hybridity transpired that imbued the Indic travelers with a vision of a land reminiscent of the fertile fields in India situated west of the Ganga and Yamuna with the legendary lake Saryanavant close by. The legendary Bharata war with its many references to the kingdom of the gods was recalled only this time it would be called New Kuruksetra and be situated between the Mekong River and Lingaparvata. This new cosmic center began a new empire which would last for over 900 years and would be mirrored in thousands of temples telling the story of man's relationship to the heavens. It is this aspect of a cosmic center at new Kuruksetra which will be brought to light in this paper showing how the "axis mundi" would herald into history the holy city of New Kuruksetra quietly nestled on the banks of the Mekong River in Champassk, S. Laos.

Imagining how reverence to the heavenly order (rita) was perceived seven thousand years ago is not possible for us living today. For one thing our atmosphere is so polluted with light and particulates it makes it impossible to clearly see the night sky. But for our distant ancestors the stars were seen as brilliant jewels representing ancestral cognition, "gods and angels," who had stories to tell. These stories were told to Veda Vyasa on the banks of the Sarasvati River next to the sacred plains of the Kurus in Northern India in 3012 BCE. Why the gods told their story in the land called Kuruksetra is the reason for this paper.

Before the Vedic story of creation was composed using ancient Sanskrit the creation story was sensed as vibrations (sounds) or divine emanations by those early sages. What the sages heard (shruti) was nothing less than the divine rhythm of the universe interpreted as mantras or even celestial fugues. In a message, delivered by Sri Jeeyan Swamiji on the Hayagreeva Stho:thram, he states that the Vedas are all mantras filled with divine root phonemes called Beejasksharas (Swamiji 1995). It was these phonemes that enabled eternity to be understood by the sages and how the gods crafted their celestial paradise as points of enlightenment. It was foreseen by the gods that a time would come when access to their celestial abode would be denied to mortal man due to his descent into ignorance as the movement of the heavens would change and the knowledge on the path to paradise would be lost without reorientation reference points. It was this realization, however, which brought the Vedas into existence so humankind would know of their celestial roots through reincarnated cognition of cosmic place. The Vedic knowledge was passed down orally from antiquity and was never learned from any previous texts. One could therefore regard the Vedas as divine impulses made into sound (mantras) waiting for the time they could be heard and transformed into sacred text through the power of sentiment.

This divine story of the Vedas was finally put into verse at the holy land of Kuruksetra. When the Vedic hymns were finally translated into English from their ancient Sanskrit text in the 19th century a vastly new concept of philosophy and religion was revealed to the world. It was a world defined by Godin, the French philosopher, as "the notion of totality in Indian thought" where the macrocosm and microcosm mirrored one another. (2000: 1).

The astroarchaeologist Rush Allen (2001:10) states that, "when the wisdom behind the celestial stories is understood as archetype source material, cosmic-spiritual reality becomes "self orienting, i.e., a religion" (Allen 2001: 10). This celestial awareness is what keeps the knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes central to conscious existence (fig. 1) in order to participate in the eternal life on earth (ecliptic) as well as in heaven (galaxy). The Vedas then are what keeps these archetypes alive, and Eliade felt that religious man periodically finds his way into mythical and sacred time; re-enters the time of origin because it is composed of an eternal present, which is indefinitely recoverable (1957:88).

Figure 1. Orientation angles between the galaxy and the earth
Click on image for larger view

But the divine story of the Vedas would remain predominantly with the great sages on the Indian sub-continent for over 4,500 years before being discovered by the western world and few people for that matter would understand their meaning until the late 19th century. The effort by early indologists from the 18th to 21st century is noteworthy. Sir William Jones (1746-1794), Henry Colebrooke (1765-1837), Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893), Max Muller (1823-1900), Sir R. G. Bhandarkar (1837-1925), Edward Washburn Hopkins (1857-1932), Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943), Ananda Kendish Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), Sir John Marshall (1876-1958), F.D.K. Bosh (1887-1967) , Arthur Llewellyn Basham (1914-1986) and Stella Kramrisch (1896-1993) to only mention a few. In the early 21st century Subhash Kak, David Frawley, George Feuerstein and Wendy Doniger O'Flaerty are adding more deep understanding of the Vedic message.

Of all the hymns in the Vedas the Mahabharata is an especially important hymn, maybe more so than the other hymns, for it portrays an epic battle of cosmic proportions which reveals the story about the creation of the universe. Within this epic poem is encoded the movement of stars, asterisms, comets, supernovas and solar eclipses. Kurukshetra became a center of great sacredness on the occasion of the solar eclipse (Mutzer 1978:25). In fact, the city has a special astronomical place in this universe. It has an historical temple called Nabh-Kamal, which indicates that Kurukshetra is situated on the central line of the universe (Dutt 2003).

But most significantly are the references to the passage of the precession of the equinoxes the divine measure of time. One such example is in the Aranya Parvan MB(III.219.10) which mentions the measure of time from Krittika (Pleiades) and that before, it used to start form rohini. A precessional cycle takes 26,000 years to complete and different asterisms can be seen on the ecliptic path every 2160 years. This 26,000 year cycle, in which four different asterisms would appear at the corners of the seasonal path on the ecliptic, was the reason the gods decided to tell their story. In (fig. 1) the red arrow on the ecliptic shows how time is of the essence on the ecliptic road because where we are on the ecliptic road indicates our entry into the gateway of the gods. Interestingly, a book titled, "Homer's Secret Iliad", shows how the Greeks of antiquity preserved important knowledge about the stars and constellations using the Trojan War as a backdrop for ancient ideas about the nature of the universe (Wood et.al.1999). This work was originally researched by Edna Florence Leigh (1916-1991) and finally published by her daughter Florence with her husband Kenneth Wood. Of particular note is Dr. Hertha von Dechend (to be mentioned later), the co-author of Hamlet's Mill, provided assistance and encouragement to publish Edna Leigh's manuscript. The story of how her manuscript eventually came to be published is truly fascinating.

The Bharata war was written to preserve the immortal cognition of the universe. Human consciousness was placed in this battlefield setting and the story unfolded using Kurukshetra as a metaphor for celestial phenomena. Ancient ancestors knew of their own ancestral origins because they used the stars to record what they thought and then orally transmitted that knowledge for untold millennia. If the name of a star changed as history progressed then the ancestral stories would change making it extremely difficult to interpret the surviving myths that we have today. Therefore, the Mahabharata is not only about a legendary war but is an ancient creation story composed of 100,000 verses. These verses were learned and passed down orally by priestly families and then by young Brahmin boys even to this day (Muller 1886: 212). However, it's only been within the last fifty years that the astronomical significance of the Mahabharata has been elaborated providing clues to a much larger story. To this end the Mahabharata Planetarium Project, which convened in 2003 in Bangalore, India, demonstrated more than 150 sky references mentioned by Veda Vyasa thus establishing the Mahabharata to become the sheet-anchor of bharatiya itihasa (Indian culture). The projection of the stars, in the third millennium BCE (fig 2.) could be seen displayed in the planetarium during the time of the Bharata war at Kuruksetra (Achar 2002).

Figure 2. Krsna's Departure for Hastinapura
Click on image for larger view

To add to the validity of an indigenous origin of the Indian civilization, population genetics data was combined with archaeological and astronomical data to confirm that the people of the Indian sub-continent were the cultural origin of the rest of the world (Singh 2006). With these two sources of knowledge, astronomy by Achar (2004) and population genetics by Singh (2006), the importance of the Vedas assumes a renewed significance necessitating Western reinterpretation of the origins of the Indian culture.

The panorama of the heavens as seen by the early Indian sages in 5000 BCE was understood and the time had come in the great 26,000 year precessional cycle for them to unveil the secrets of the heavens which extolled the origins of the human race. The secrets, however, were hard to understand as they were veiled in a highly inventive symbolic language within the Sanskrit verses of the Mahabharata. These verses hid the celestial knowledge of precession and the origins of creation from those not ready to receive them. As we of today reach another epic period in the precessional cycle, when a return to the Golden Age in once again taking place, those secrets are slowly being revealed to prepare humankind for an unprecedented spiritual transformation as our collective astral mind passes back through the "Door in the Sky" (Coomaraswamy 2004) or a point on the precessional path also known as the gateway of the gods (Allen 2006). This ancient knowledge has deep significant spiritual value for a world that has lost the wisdom of the sacredness of the universe.

To aid our understanding we are gifted with the writings of Dutch indologist F.D.K. Bosh, and Annada K. Coomaraswamy, both of whom have specialized in Indian symbolism. In The Golden Germ: An introduction to Indian symbolism (1960:87) Bosh interprets the Mahabharata epic as a constant comparison between the origin and the growth of a tree. Bosh saw Kuruksetra, India as a cosmic center and pointed out that the sacred city Varahatirtha was located there. The third incarnation of Vishnu was in the form of a boar named Vahara. The boar is furthermore regarded as Brahma who raised the earth from the depths of the universal waters with his tusks and then composed the Vedas on the holy soil of Kuruksetra. These universal waters are now the holy tanks throughout Kurukshetra. The symbolism Bosh reveals is far too extensive to elaborate upon in this paper but the center of the universe with the axis of the cosmic tree (skambha) was Bosh's way of revealing what a Scottish mythologist coined as the "Architecture of the Spirit" (Stewart 2007) where the sky and earth are separated establishing the early creation myths. The architecture of the spirit is what Allen depicts in (fig. 1.) as the cosmic battleground where the spirits of the dead rise from the Abysmal Sea through the solar system to the Elysian Field. His time mark is under the circlet of Pisces at the Door to Heaven.

Figure 3. Ingo Swann's painting "Heaven and Earth"
Click on image for larger view

In 1971, Ingo Swann, an artist, psychic and father of "remote viewing" envisioned the creation myth with a painting (fig. 3.) depicting the separation of heaven and earth (Swann 2007). What supported the separation of heaven and earth was the cosmic pillar or axis of the universe (skambha). This axis to the heavens became the most significant symbol to be used throughout the Vedic creation stories and was ultimately incorporated into all Hindu temple construction (Kramrisch 1946). The axial pathway at Vat Phu, the longest of all these axial temple pathways/causeways, was in fact used as the symbol to show the pathway to the gods. New Kuruksetra in Laos thus became, for the early Indianized Khmers, their new cosmic center establishing the foundation of a lasting empire. The temple at Vat Phu is today a visible testimony to the adulation of the divine powers which the temple architects mirrored on the eastern slop of Lingaparvata.

Coomaraswamy's contribution to how the mind of early Indian culture interpreted their world is essential reading for seeing the symbolic language as represented in art and architecture. His work in "Guardians of the Sundoor" explains the evolution of our spirit into the immortal realm of the gods. These insights allow a different set of interpretive skills to be applied to India's art and architecture and when interpreting the combined symbolism of pre-Indian cultures with classical Indian culture a clarity of meaning bridges the knowledge which has come to us from tens of thousands of years ago (Coomarswamy 2004).

The knowledge of the Bharata war is set to memory and will never be forgotten because the epic has become myth. It is this mythic orientation to the creation of heaven and earth that was finally deciphered by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend with their ground breaking work titled Hamlet's Mill (de Santillana and von Dechend 1969), an essay investigating the origins of human knowledge and its transmission through myth. This book was the Rosetta stone of literature that unlocked the intelligence of our ancient ancestors.

The Mahabharata myth has now become a historical document supported by scientific scrutiny as shown by Achar (2004) and Singh (2006). But it was Hamlet's Mill that forever restored the way we would look at our ancestors, and it was felt by these two authors, de Santillana and von Dechend (1969: xi), that the reader would have to place himself in the "ancient order of time" to fully comprehend what our ancestors witnessed. And Allen states, "when cosmic truth is found we become aware of ancestral consciousness through reincarnation of a prior spirit" (2001: 16).

The stairway along the cosmic axis linking earth to the realms of heaven is a fundamental symbol of the Mahabharata epic. This cosmic center or world axis has been referred to in many verses within the Vedic texts including the churning of the milky ocean, the asuras stealing the Vedas from Brahma, and the many reasons behind the incarnations of Vishnu. Over the millennia the migration of Indian traders and visiting Brahman priests formed greater India which eventually led to two of the most remarkable empires namely the Cham and Khmer. The meaning of the Vedas was guarded by holy families (hotars and purohitas) who served the Khmer Kings. They lived and worked in close association with the ruling families. This was particularly the case with the Hinduized Khmer. These holy men experienced the world much differently from the way we experience it today. Their phenomenal world most likely was made up of an assemblage of stirring images each one a narrative sung by a deity. Their natural world too was ascribed deep symbolism which carried divine meaning conveyed to them by the gods using sacred sounds that helped these royal advisors in identifying for the kings their divine relationship to the universe.

Expert priests as royal advisors divined from the natural lay of the land the significant designs for the elevation of an hydraulic, rice-based peasant society, as is exemplified by King Yasovarman I, who with the aid of Brahman advisors, "ordered hydraulic works of a grand scale and the development of the large Eastern Baray, the Yasodharatataka, and a network of canals that connected it" (Jacques, 25) to a greater agricultural based society that was believed to be imbued by the nectar of the gods. According to Harris, to determine the optimal geomantic correspondences, Veda-based designers and engineers constructed royal cities centered on the notion of the linga as the sacred mountain this "compound effect did nothing but swell the ramifications of the primordial conception. As a cosmic pillar, or axis mundi, was always the designated center of the realm and symbolized doubly the enshrined linga and the sacred mountain Kailasa, both the corridor of the gods or "cakratirtha" (Harris 2007). In fact Cambodian monarchs made exacting calculations to determine the kingdom's essential power-point, and there they erected the royal temple. This mysterious "point-zero" furthermore functioned as the fundamental reference point to which all-subsequent centers were aligned. Thus, the linga of the king became the primal locus not only of the immediate geographic locale, but also by extension the entire universe. By erecting temple-mountains to enshrine the royal linga, each succeeding king was essentially constructing a personal quincunx or "four-cornered force-field" in the form of a religo-architectural mandala of universal alignment, power and protection (Harris 2007).

Yet more important still, we need to keep in mind that mandalas are more than just microcosmic mirrors of the universe. To be sure, mandalas are receptacles of the gods. Here we have the fundamental cause and conception that led to the birth of New Kuruksetra, the flourishing cradle of Khmer Civilization.

This phenomenological relationship to the world comprising beliefs from the old megalithic culture fused with the classical Indian culture was the root cause which led to New Kuruksetra becoming the cradle of the Khmer empire and eventually the Devaraja cult.

There are few ways to philosophically explain what happened at New Kuruksetra except that a transformative and syncretic event was conceived. When the early sages saw the heavenly mountain Lingaparvarta penetrating the sky (fig. 4.) it must have of seemed as if Shiva himself was watching over the land. An epiphany of god like proportions must of taken place and New Kuruksetra was established in 456 AD by King Mahorajadhiraja Sriman Sridevanika.


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